News - March 1996

Judge strikes down Alabama's ban on gay student groups

MONTGOMERY, Ala -- In a closely watched First Amendment case, a federal court Jan. 30 struck down an Alabama statute designed to bar lesbian and gay student groups and positive discussions of gay issues from university campuses, saying it violated the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and association.

Judge Myron H. Thompson, of the United States District Court in Montgomery, invalidated the statute as wholly unenforceable, calling it "naked viewpoint discrimination" and an "open effort by the state legislature to limit the sexuality discussion in institutions of higher learning to only one viewpoint: that of heterosexual people." "This viewpoint limitation violates the First Amendment," the judge concluded.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the challenge, hailed the decision as a significant victory for the First Amendment rights of all students, and a major setback to efforts to pass anti-gay legislation targeting classrooms and campuses.

"This ruling should give pause to anti-gay extremists across the country who are seeking to censor all discussions of lesbian and gay issues among students," said Ruth E. Harlow, Associate Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, who argued the case before the court. "If other legislatures or school boards adopt similar policies, they can expect the First Amendment to be invoked successfully against them."

The statute sought to bar "any college or university from spending public funds or using public facilities ... to sanction, recognize, or support any group that promotes a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws" of the state.

The contested law, Section 16-1-28 of Alabama's Education Code, swept through the state legislature in 1992 in response to a decision by Auburn University officials to grant official recognition to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance at that school.

The ACLU brought its challenge when state officials invoked the law against the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance at the University of South Alabama, a state school in Mobile. That group, which aims to create a supportive environment for gay, lesbian and bisexual students, as well as to foster discussion about homophobia and AIDS prevention, was denied funding and equal treatment because of Section 16-1-28.

Judge Thompson found that as a result of the law being enforced, the group "has been denied on-campus banking facilities, disqualified from receiving funding, and subjected to an intrusive and highly personal fact-finding investigation .... These actions have hindered GLBA's ability to function as a student group, to sponsor events and speakers, and to attract new and maintain old members."

Alan Clampett, president of the group, expressed "relief that the cloud of this law had finally been lifted." "Our group will at last receive the respect and First Amendment protection it deserves," he said.

Today's decision also paves the way for the Southeast Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual College Conference to take place at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa next month. That conference has recently drawn the ire of Alabama officials threatening to use the now-invalidated statute to block the meeting, which is expected to draw hundreds of students from throughout the region.

The ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project was joined in the case by the ACLU of Alabama, with Fern Singer of the Birmingham-based law firm of Sirote & Permutt serving as its cooperating attorney.

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